Sewing For The American Dream

In hundreds of small Seattle factories and in homes, low-paid Southeast-Asian refugees work long hours assembling outdoor gear sold by big-name Seattle companies. By all accounts, these workers' lives are hard but better, they say, than the lives they fled.

Driving past the pawn shops, porn shops and thrift shops that line the commercial strip in White Center, just south of West Seattle, one could completely miss the bustle of manufacturing that takes place behind abandoned buildings and neglected warehouses in this neighborhood.

From the outside, Professional Sewing looks like an empty storefront. The faded names of former businesses are barely visible above windows that have been painted over.

Inside, more than 30 Cambodian, Vietnamese and Laotian immigrant women hunch over industrial sewing machines stitching nylon day-packs and portable-computer packs for fashionable, outdoor-minded Northwest customers.

All over White Center, and in other scattered pockets around Puget Sound, Southeast Asian immigrants work long hours in factories like this, churning out day-packs and duffel bags for well-known outdoor-wear companies such as REI, JanSport, Eastpak, Eddie Bauer and Trager.

It's a late 20th-century variation on one of America's oldest and most enduring themes: new immigrants, in pursuit of a better life working endlessly for low wages - making the most of their only competitive advantage, cheap labor.

As U.S. apparel-manufacturing jobs move overseas where labor is a bargain and regulations are few, the garment industry in Seattle-area storefronts and in home-based sewing shops edges closer to conditions like those in developing countries. In the Seattle area, the labor is performed primarily by legal refugees from Southeast Asia.

To find this type of industry, you have to know where to look: in the back room of Uyen Phuong Gifts, upstairs above the restaurant at My A pool hall, behind the closed blinds at Daravy Manufacturing, in the long warehouse spaces of Golden Sewing.

In some cases, work is done in homes, apartments, garages and public-housing projects throughout White Center, Renton and Rainier Valley.

Few of the Seattle-area sewing factories resemble the notorious "sweatshops" recently uncovered in New York and Los Angeles, where employees were forced to work against their wills. But the factories and home-sewing shops where the merchandise is made often bear little resemblance to the well-scrubbed image outdoor retailers project to the public.

Commercial home sewing is legal in Washington although it is outlawed in several other states because of the potential for abuse of labor laws. Few companies will admit to using home-sewing shops.

The chief financial officer for Eastpak, Scott Ochs, after being confronted with evidence this week that the company's backpacks are being sewn in homes in the Seattle area, acknowledged that Eastpak's contractors were using home workers. Late last week, Ochs said Eastpak would cancel orders with all three of its Seattle-area contractors because they had subcontracted some production to home seamstresses. However, production of Eastpak's fall orders is nearly finished, according to one contractor.

The three contractors produce a half million Eastpak bags a year, 40 percent of the company's total production.

"We're obviously very embarrassed by this," Ochs said. "We frankly should have been more diligent in checking up on this."

"It's better than war"

Factory owners Saren and Tha Chan Has are constantly moving.

Twenty years after fleeing war-torn Cambodia, they have managed to sew their way into their own home and a small business.

Saren Has wears a black lifting belt as he talks on his cellular phone, pacing around his shop, which occupies three storefronts along 16th Avenue Southwest.

Has often needs to lift heavy stacks of nylon - provided by Eastpak - which he cuts into tiny pieces ready to be stitched, then assembled into packs.

Seated at a sewing table, Tha Chan Has' hands move quickly, running black nylon fabric through a machine as she listens to a review cassette for U.S. citizenship on her Walkman headset. Like most who sew for a living, she puts in long hours.

"Ten hours, 12 hours, I say OK because it's better than war," said Tha Chan Has, who fled Cambodia in 1975.

Many of their workers make $5 an hour, just 10 cents more than the minimum wage in Washington, and none get health insurance, paid vacations or other benefits. But then again, neither do Saren and Tha Chan Has.

Three tiers of employment

At Bill Wong's Sewing Contractor, on Rainier Avenue, iron bars reinforce the storefront's plate-glass windows, which are cracked and shattered in several places. Fire officials shut down Wong's factory last week for fire-code violations. Wong said he hopes to be operating again by tomorrow.

Across the street, at Perfect Sewing, the factory is shuttered behind several black, accordian-shaped iron gates, which are linked by a series of large metal chains and locks. Both contractors have produced clothing for REI, which is slated to open a new $30 million state-of-the art flagship store in Seattle next month.

Manufacturers, retailers and workers find themselves facing some hard economic realities:

On one hand, immigrant workers struggle at the bottom of the economic food chain assembling backpacks and outdoor garments under tight deadlines.

On the other, sewing provides a chance to eke out a living in a field where a command of English isn't required and, perhaps someday, a chance to buy a house and send the kids to college.

Some, like Tha Chan Has and Saren Has, co-owners of Professional Sewing, even prosper enough to open their own factories, although most workers who do prosper have to work two jobs to do it.

Today, the bulk of the sewing jobs in the U.S. consist of making small shipments of quickly assembled merchandise such as backpacks.

Some are made in factories owned by the companies. More and more, though, work is farmed out to contractors, where intense competition forces cost-cutting and keeps wages low.

The result is three tiers of employment. JanSport, for example, makes backpacks in three of its own factories in Washington state. Their manufacturing employees are paid an average of $7 to $8 an hour and receive medical benefits, pensions and on-site day-care at reduced rates.

But JanSport contracts out half of its annual production to about 10 local sewing contractors, where workers are paid as little as 8 cents for sewing a strap and receive no benefits.

On the bottom tier are the home seamstresses, who assemble JanSport products for even less - as little as 4 cents a strap.

50 straps an hour

Setting up shop in the garment industry is relatively easy.

Used industrial sewing machines cost as little as $1,000 each. The manufacturer supplies everything else, from fabric to labels to zippers.

Rent for manufacturing space in areas such as White Center and Rainier Valley is dirt cheap. Bich Phuong pays only $722 a month in rent for her small White Center gift shop and back-room factory, called Uyen Phuong Sewing.

Phuong is one of many subcontractors working for Golden Sewing, located just down the street, which sews brand-name products for REI, Eddied Bauer, Wilderness Experience, Nature Co. and Southwest Airlines. Golden Sewing pays her 7 cents a seam. As the most experienced seamstress in the store, she can earn $7 an hour.

At Golden, workers are hired on the basis of their productivity. If a seamstress is going to be hired to produce 10-cent straps, the factory gives her a trial period of one week to prove she can sew at least 50 straps per hour - to ensure she's making the minimum wage of $4.90 an hour. If she cannot sew quickly enough, she does not get the job.

How much sewing workers make per piece varies widely, depending on the difficulty of the stitching and competition for the bid.

"If you sew a lot, you can do it so fast you can do it blindfolded. It's automatic," said Bill Wong, owner of Bill Wong's Sewing Contractor. "He," Wong said, gesturing to one of his employees, "doesn't even have to look at it. That's the only way you can do it so fast and make money."

No such thing as a permanent job

Saroun Chhan's day begins at 5 a.m. and does not end until nearly midnight. She and her husband, Mony Sun, rise long before their children wake.

Chhan shuttles between jobs as a seamstress and janitor, stopping at home just long enough to cook a large pot of rice - a 50-pound bag costs just $17 and feeds the entire family for three weeks.

She arrives home from the sewing factory at 4 p.m.; by 4:30, she's leaving for her second job, cleaning floors. She misses dinner with the family. When she finally gets home for the night, she prepares more rice for the next day's meal before she goes to bed.

Chhan, a seamstress for Professional Sewing, also fled Cambodia 17 years ago after the Khmer Rouge killed three of her brothers. Since coming to this country with nothing, she has bought a house and sent three of her six children to college.

"I work two jobs," Chhan said. "I go to work, I come home, I make rice, I go to work, I come home, I make rice."

Although Chhan doesn't sew at home anymore, there was a time when she brought home the piecework she couldn't finish at her job. Like the children of many sewing-shop workers, Chhan's children helped by cutting the material.

While such working conditions might be unacceptable to many Americans, they are a fact of life for families like Chhan's. Many began working as young children or teenagers, either cutting fabric for their parents at home or as employees in garment factories in Asia.

When contractors can't handle all the work that comes in, they farm out production to an intricate network of small shops and home-sewing contractors.

The home workers often lack many basic wage-and-hour benefits - overtime pay, minimum wage, Social Security insurance, workers' compensation insurance or health-care coverage.

Children who help their parents also work without legal protection. State regulators say child labor is hard to define. There are pages and pages of detailed rules.

Chhan's labor - as well as her children's - has helped the family move out of public housing.

Today, three generations live in Chhan's modest White Center house. It cost $65,000, with a $20,000 down payment, made possible by eight years of scrimping.

For Chhan and others, sewing provides a better life than they knew in Southeast Asia, but it's still no picnic.

There is no such thing as a permanent job or even steady hours. Many workers file for unemployment insurance during the off-season, when sewing factories typically lay off their workers. But Chhan can't live on unemployment, so she takes temporary jobs - as a janitor, at meat-processing plants, anywhere - until she can begin sewing again.

"At Professional Sewing, I work, I quit, I work, I get laid off, I go back," Chhan said. "When they close I go to another job."

`I was tired . . . but I wanted the money'

Like many Asian couples, Tha Chan Has and her husband built their business around her sewing skills. Tha Chan Has sewed at home for years before opening Professional Sewing.

"I needed the money, and when I work fast, I get the money fast," Tha Chan Has said. "When I work at home, I have no time to sleep. My husband make me dinner, and I tell him `just coffee'." Like earlier generations of immigrants, many workers decline to report violations because they fear employer reprisals. Others fear losing their jobs if state labor laws are enforced.

"Some of them are paid off the books," said Peter Truong, a King County Police officer who patrols the White Center garment district.

"Some workers tell me they work long hours with no overtime, but then they refuse to show up and file charges," Truong said. "If they don't make a claim or testify, we drop the whole thing."

Garment-industry insiders say they are never at a loss for sewing workers.

Most Asian immigrant women in the Seattle area have sewing machines, said Gunner Olsen, who employs many local subcontractors to produce snowboard gear for his company, Ned Limbo Activewear.

"You go into White Center or Georgetown, and half the neighborhood is sewing," Olsen said. "You'd be amazed how many sewing machines you can fit in a basement."

Most women who work in local sewing factories during the day have second jobs as home sewers, he said.

"At (longtime Seattle apparel manufacturer) Roffe, the women don't tell you they sew at home because they don't want their full-time jobs to know they all work all night, too," Olsen said.

Poor language skills limit options

It's a recent Wednesday morning. The sun floods into the two-bedroom apartment stuffed with open boxes of nylon patterns, spools of thread and piles of nearly finished black day-packs that rise higher than the height of the living-room sofa.

Four large, industrial sewing machines crowd the living and dining areas, boxes of zippers and side pockets are strewn across the white carpet, making it difficult to open the front door or to walk without stepping on material.

But it's a clear sign that business is hopping at the Thuy Sewing Co.

Thuy Le, 20, hunches over a double-needled Juki sewing machine that cost $3,900, guiding the nylon fabric through complicated stitches. Her back faces the front window. Beads of sweat already develop on her forehead, but she focuses on her task.

She's connecting a foam piece to the back of the pack. Across from Thuy sits her sister Ha, 21. The large machine nearly dwarfs Ha as she bends over the table stitching one side of the pack after another. A third woman stuffs the foam into the pack.

The two sisters, who can barely speak English, operate a tiny sewing factory in their cramped White Center apartment. In less than five days, they can assemble 500 small backpacks and duffel bags for companies such as JanSport and Eastpak. For five months of work, they each earn $5,000 to $6,000 - at 90 cents to $1.25 per pack.

Usually, the sisters can make five or six packs in an hour. When they have a contract to fill, they can work more than 10 hours a day. Neighbors say they've heard the sewing machines humming well past midnight.

"We get no overtime," said Ha Le.

The two sisters, who spent a few years at Rainier Beach High School after arriving in the U.S., use their earnings to support their parents, brothers and sisters. They hope to save some of it for college.

"We go to school, we study and we sew," said Thuy. "A lot of Vietnamese are sewing in houses."

Abusive working conditions have prompted New York, New Jersey and California to outlaw commercial home sewing. But it is legal in Washington state.

Federal law prohibits people from sewing women's apparel at home, which historically has been where most exploitation has occurred.

Home seamstresses such as Thuy and Ha Le, say working at home allows them to pursue one of the few economic options open to them.

Without a knowledge of English, most Asian refugees, like other immigrants, are reluctant to look for better jobs.

"It's hard to apply for a job," said Professional Sewing's Tha Chan Has. "I don't read, I don't write, they don't hire me. When they ask me the questions, I shake. That's why all the Asians open a business sewing."